Articles in Memoir
For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.
The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”
The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.
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The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.
The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.
An intricate system
A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.
The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.
In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.
A misplaced lunchbox
And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.
On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.
As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.
I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.
Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
German food can be quite inaccessible. Many people think of it as heavy or they aren’t sure exactly what it is beyond sausages and sauerkraut. But what’s wrong with starting off with sausages and sauerkraut, especially for a cold winter party? This all came to mind because of an old family photo I came across while scanning.
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It was of my mother sitting on the terrace of the General Walker hotel in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, in 1954. It dawned on me that nine years before this was the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat. The U.S. Army captured it in 1945, and the property became a hotel as part of the U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC).
My father was stationed with the Air Force in France at the time, and we often vacationed at U.S. Armed Forces retreats. In the photo, my mother, Helen DeYeso Wright, enjoys the sun on the same terrace where Hitler sat only some years before with Hermann Goering. During the same visit, I played nearby with my sister dressed in Bavarian costumes my parents bought.
The early 1950s was a time before the West German economic miracle, and the Germans were a vanquished and humbled people, ashamed but confused about their recent Nazi past, fearful of Soviet Russia, and very friendly towards Americans. I asked my mother about that time and she told me that the area was beautiful. She described Hitler’s bunker, which still existed in 1954.
The Germans in the mid-1950s, she said, were very friendly and my parents opted to eat in town rather than at the General Walker, which only served American food. My parents wanted German food, and although neither one of them were beer drinkers, they downed their steins of lager with, as she called it, those “big fat sausages” (weisswurst), spaetzle, sauerkraut, roast potatoes and “really fantastic” apple strudel.
Bavarian sausage traditions
To this day Bavaria is sausage central, where hearty and delicious food is still enjoyed by beer-loving Germans and tourists so far removed from those horrible times it’s hard to believe it happened there at all. At that moment I realized I wanted to sink my teeth into some weisswurst. A Bavarian weisswurst mit sauerkraut is not hard to do, because you’re only reheating as you will have bought the weisswurst and the sauerkraut and the mustard, hopefully from your nearest German delicatessen.
Weisswurst, literally white sausage, is a traditional Bavarian sausage made of very finely chopped veal and pork fat back flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, ginger, onions and sometimes cardamom, though different sausage makers make it a bit differently each time. Traditionally it is eaten with a warm soft pretzel and sweet mustard. In the rural tradition, it is eaten in the method known as zutzln where the sausage meat is squeezed out of the casing with one’s teeth directly into the mouth.
Once you find weisswurst at a delicatessen or grocery store, you can boil it before serving, or you can boil and then fry it.
Finding weisswurst harder than preparing it
The best advice I can given about having a weisswurst mit sauerkraut party in the middle of winter is to visit a local German deli and buy their freshly made sausage, not pre-cooked or packaged weisswurst from the supermarket. There are plenty of German delis all over the country and a quick Google search will turn one up for you. The same goes for the sauerkraut. Mail order is a second option, although weisswurst are highly perishable and you’ll need to have your sausage shipped express, overnight in a cold pack.
Bavaria Sausage of Wisconsin sells sauerkraut and Bavarian mustard as well. The beer you should be able to get everywhere, and only Bavarian lager will do. Prost und gutes Essen! (Cheers and bon appetit!)
Top photo: Weisswurst and sauerkraut. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
“Knead until it’s smooth and shiny,” my mother told me, just as her mother had told her, as we made the egg pasta dough for the traditional fried dough dipped in honey treats my grandmother brought as a spoken recipe when she emigrated from southern Italy to the south side of Chicago as a teenager.
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“Smooth and shiny” echoes in my head as I make these Christmas treats with my teenage nieces. They never heard the voice of their Italian great-grandmother, Saveria Castiglia, never saw her twinkling blue eyes or felt her heavy tread on the steep stairs to her apartment. But they know exactly what she made for Christmas every year, and how she made it. Their hands roll out the dough just as she did, forming the circles and braids of cosi boni and the little pillows of cassateddi filled with nuts and raisins.
As I watch my nieces shape the dough, I see myself and all my brothers and sisters gathered around another kitchen table many years ago, rolling the dough, making the shapes, watching as Mom carefully slipped them into the bubbling oil, then later dipped each one in hot honey, before we ate one after another and licked our fingers.
And every Christmas we gather to make cosi boni and cassateddi again, and make new memories, which will become old memories, that will in time be passed down and become new again. And it occurs to me that traditional family recipes live forever as if inside an infinite set of matryoshka dolls.
Fried dough recipe makes it to paper
I’ve heard people say that if God had intended us to follow recipes, he wouldn’t have given us grandmothers. I would add that God gave us grandmothers to give recipes eternal life.
The recipes below were spoken recipes for many centuries before my mother had her mother write them down. As I searched for similar recipes online, I found infinite variations of fried dough dipped in honey or sugar, and various cassateddi or cassatelle recipes filled with chickpeas and cocoa, or ricotta and chocolate, but none using as simple a dough or a filling as my grandmother’s.
This is undoubtedly because my grandmother came from a very poor family in a very poor village. Once she left, she never went back. But the dialect (cosi boni, not the proper cose buone) and the recipe survived the hard life of an immigrant, and has now survived another three generations. Poor as she was, she created a rich tradition, a living family heirloom.
So whatever your family holiday recipes are, gather round the kitchen table and pass them on!
Cosi Boni (in Grandma’s dialect) or Cose Buone (in standard Italian)
Makes about 2 dozen pieces
Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least 1 inch deep
2 to 3 cups flour, enough so the dough won’t be too sticky
Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about an inch deep
1. Heat the oil to 370 F.
2. Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat lightly with a fork.
3. Slowly add the flour until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.
4. Knead the dough lightly until it’s smooth and shiny.
5. Pinch off small pieces and roll into ¼-inch thick ropes. Form into simple circles, braids, crosses, pretzel shapes, etc.
6. Gently drop the dough pieces, one at a time, into the oil. Fry in batches, and don’t crowd the pan. The dough will drop to the bottom, and then float to the surface. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.
7. When all the cosi boni have been fried, heat the honey just to a simmer in a wide, low-sided pan. Turn off the heat, and use a fork or tongs to coat each piece. Place in a mound on a serving platter.
Makes about 2 dozen pieces
For the filling:
1 pound raisins
½ pound walnuts
1 or 2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1 to 2 teaspoons allspice, or to taste
½ to 1 cup honey, warmed (use enough to have the filling just barely stick together)
For the dough:
3 or 4 eggs
3-4 teaspoons of water
3-4 teaspoons of oil
About 3 cups flour
Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about 1 inch
Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least one inch deep
1. To make the filling, put the raisins and walnuts into a food processor, or chop roughly with a knife.
2. Add the orange peel, allspice and ½ cup honey to the raisin and nut mixture and stir to blend. The filling should barely hold together when you pick up a small ball of it. If it doesn’t, add a little more honey, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want the filling oozing out of the little pillows when you fry them.
3. To make the dough, beat the eggs lightly with a fork in a large bowl. Add the water and oil and beat lightly to combine.
4. Slowly add the flour, about ½ cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. If it’s sticky, add more flour.
5. Roll the dough into a thin sheet. If it shrinks back as you roll it, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then roll out again.
6. Heat the oil to 370 F.
7. Cut into circles or squares, put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of each, and fold the dough over the filling, using fork tines to seal the two edges of dough.
8. Gently drop the pillows, one at a time, into very hot oil being careful not to crowd the pan. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.
9. After they cool, or the next day, heat a pan full of honey and use a fork to dip the fried dough in the hot honey. Pile high on a serving platter.
Top photo: Fried dough from Grandma’s recipe. Credit: Terra Brockman
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
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I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman